When Did “Conspiracy Theory” Come To Mean Something Other Than What The Words Imply?
I have come to realize I use a different definition for the term conspiracy theory than most: I simply put the two words together along with their commonly accepted meanings. Thus, a conspiracy theory is a theory that two or more people are conspiring together. As commonly used, the word theory means a hypothesis upon which one can place known facts in order to see if they make a pattern that holds true. Conspire means people working together in secret.
Constructing theories is quite a human and healthy thing to do, provided one does not mistake them for reality. Many people fall into this trap, but the more thoughtful realize a theory must be tested and disregarded should it not hold up to evidence. Like any useful tool, the potential for its abuse always exists. But if we were to throw away every tool with a potential for abuse, we would be living in caves without the luxury of a fire.
However, the definition for conspiracy theory used by most holds within it an aspect that does not flow from the words themselves. Somehow, and for some reason, another meaning has been injected into the term.
Let us take the definitive definition (which in our age is Wikipedia’s, since that is the one Google is going to give you first, and thus, the only definition the overwhelming majority of people will use). According to Wikipedia, “A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.”
First, let me address the word “sinister”, which my former English professor would refer to as a “growl” word (a loaded word intended to invoke an emotional response rather than an intellectual one). I view “sinister” as an unnecessary modifier, implying that the only people who entertain conspiracy theories are those who see sinister forces all about them. You know, the tin hat types. I know many mentally healthy people who engage in conspiracy theories. In fact, the majority of Americans have consistently said that they believe there was a conspiracy involved in the assassination of President Kennedy since the question was first asked in November of 1963.
More concerning, however, are the words “when other explanations are more probable.” On the surface, such an add-on seems harmless, but it opens the door for those who will always argue that the official position is the more probable one. In fact, they quite often say that the official position is an inarguable one, one which only deranged lunatics would dare question.
One only has to look at the death of Jeffrey Epstein to see how the idea of a “more probable explanation” is abused. The media would have you believe that the official story is the probable one. The official story being that there was nothing unusual about Epstein being allowed to kill himself despite being perhaps the most important prisoner of the last fifty years, that his guards were lax, that the surveillance cameras malfunctioned, that sociopaths like Epstein are not prone to suicide. That there was no need for the public to know any more about him or his acquaintances than what they’ve already been told, and that the media should be totally uninterested in profiting off the story of the century. Let us make this clear, in a year when CNN’s and MSNBC’s ratings are plummeting, they have no desire to obsess over the salacious details of a billionaire pedophile with ties to some of the most well-known people on earth. That is what they would have you believe is the “other explanation that is more probable.” I’d like to see a mathematician work up the probability of that being the case.
The use of the term “conspiracy theory” to mean something more than the sum of its words is relatively recent, dating to my knowledge back to the 1960’s (Katharina Thalman says it started in the 50’s, but she also believes the assassination of JFK to be a primary factor). It follows, then, that there would be some documentation of when it was first used as such, by whom, and for what purpose. There are many people such as Richard Lederer who love nothing more than tracing the origins and histories of far more trivial words and phrases than this one. There should be a clear trail to the source of this added meaning.
Perhaps the Oxford English Dictionary can trace back the origins of the term conspiracy theory referring to more than the sum of its parts, but if so it rests behind a paywall I’m unable to afford. As my local library is closed today, I’m afraid you’ll have to rely on my personal recollections and whatever I’m able to find through the internet. After all, the origins should be traceable.
If memory serves, the tin hat connotation added to the term conspiracy theory began in response to researchers of the Kennedy assassination. It has been suggested that the term was used pejoratively by the CIA in order to make anyone questioning the official story appear crazy or ill-intentioned.
Is it wrong to bring up that possibility without having any evidence for it? I don’t think so, for many reasons. First, there is a good amount of evidence for it, far more than I have the time to delve into. Second, it sounds quite plausible. It has been my experience through 5 ½ decades of life that what sounds likely is most often true and what sounds false as stated authoritatively from power is most often false. Third, the very fact that we have secretive and unaccountable organizations in charge of our country and the better part of our world means we damn well better be asking questions and creating theories about what we will never be given the facts on. A little bit of openness and accountability would go a long way in encouraging confidence. Fourth, while I have found no conclusive proof that this is the case, I’ve looked harder for other explanations as to how “conspiracy theory” came to imply nuttiness and have found none. It seems like the CIA introducing the new meaning appears to be the probable one. Hence, by the accepted definition, such an assertion, even if declared as fact, would not be a conspiracy theory.
It is not the CIA alone that seems to be increasingly asking us to trust them and implying that questioners of official narratives be marginalized. The attitude seems to be spreading from most every media and governmental source. The fear of permitting people to think outside the established narrative seems to permeate all aspects of our culture.
The other day I was about to use the word “conjecture” and thought that I should read its definition to make sure it was the mot juste. When I read the definition online at the Merriam Webster site, I was disappointed to find it was not the definition I believed it to be. And as people of a certain age tend to do, I wanted to check to see if my memory was failing utterly, because I was so sure it had a different shade of meaning. So I hauled out my Webster’s dictionary from 1964, and there I found the definition I was familiar with.
Here then was the primary definition of conjecture I had grown up with: “a putting together, guess, inference.” Surely not a word to be mistaken for incontrovertible fact, but a worthy tool for humans as they go about life in a world where we seldom if ever have time to delve down to the absolute essence of everything. Most of us, if we are honest and not trying to cast ourselves as authorities to be trusted and obeyed, would admit to basing our actions more on conjecture than certainty. Quite frankly, nobody has time to be certain. And authority based on secrecy is inherently not to be trusted.
The current Meriam-Webster online definition of conjecture, however, has a distinctly negative connotation: “Essential Meaning of conjecture : an opinion or idea formed without proof or sufficient evidence”. The person who engages in conjecture according to this is guilty of doing something wrong. He is a bad person. Just how and why this shift in definition took place is a matter for conjecture. Either that or a hell of a lot of research or else a hell of a lot of trust in authority.
There is this subtle shift in the public narrative to suggest that those who engage in contemplation, those who try to delve into the darkness in hopes of making out outlines of what lies within, are wrong, bad, dangerous. The examples of dissent-shaming are so multitudinous that we are virtually swimming in them. Turn on cable news, and you will likely drown in them, if you have not already adapted to the environment. For God’s sake, why don’t we trust them?!
Those who have official approval to address the masses — our politicians and media figures — do not define what is exactly wrong with those who disagree with them, those who bring up unpopular opinions or facts. Instead, they use a shotgun approach the way an abuser would. Sometimes it’s because they’re simply stupid, sometimes they’re actively colluding with the Russians or simply useful idiots of Vladimir Putin. Sometimes they’re fascists, other times they’re racists and misogynists. They will use whatever explanation is convenient because they don’t want you knowing the truth or reasoning your way to the truth. The only truth they want you to accept is the one they provide. It might be directly opposite of the truth they told you yesterday, it does not matter. The only thing that matters is it’s what they tell you. That, and only that, is the truth.
Stop thinking and obey.